News media can't misreport if given accurate information by government

Garry Wills, a political philosopher and journalist, said, "Accountability is the essence of democracy. If people do not know what their government is doing, they cannot be truly self-governing.”

Therefore, the call for governments to make critical information accessible to news media and the benefits that come with it is the foundation on which democracies stand.

Having said that, the hot news last week, before King Charles visited Kenya and expressed his regret for the violence that Britain meted on our forefathers, the media had unleashed another ‘violence’ on President William Ruto's transcontinental ‘air shuttles’. Standing on their fourth estate, the news media, in bold and caps, estimated the air travel by the head of state and his entourage.

The President, in a stance of crisis communication, clarified that his travels are beneficial to the country. But numbers that the media had floated were not since numbers, they say, rarely lie.

The news media, in their usual check and balance approach, had reported that later, the President had reduced government spending on foreign trips by Sh500 million. While we thought that was a thumbs up, President Ruto quickly corrected the journalists for getting the numbers wrong. He said his government had reduced travel expenses by up to Sh11 billion.

The President suggested that the news media deliberately ‘edited’ his austerity measures on foreign travel downwards. But whose work is it to give the media the correct information regarding the government? Should the press deploy a ‘word of knowledge’ in reporting about the government? Isn’t it the mandate of the government to serve the public, through the news media, with accurate information regarding its operations and at the right time?

If the government does not give enough information to the Fourth Estate, the journalists will get it anyway because their daily hustle is reporting. That does not, however, mean that our journalists go around foraging on unconfirmed information to report for the sake of it.

However, there are several reasons behind media misreporting on government issues. First, it is usually a symptom of an opaque administration. Media misreporting has been noted in cases where ruling regimes are not transparent enough to give journalists access to critical information. In these cases, the media is likely to misrepresent the government. In some cases where the press is bold enough, it can decide to 'shoot randomly at the bush so that the enemy can come out'.

For example, in our case, the media already established that President Ruto's government had at least committed to cutting government travel expenditure. But, how much was where the President felt the ‘given’ score was inaccurate—it could have been deliberate.

It is the mandate of any government to ensure that the public gets enough information on essential matters through news media. The news media has the mandate to report to the public issues that concern their government. Therefore, unless the government lays bare all information through their various strategic communication forums, the news media is likely to misreport.

Moreover, if the government is ready to share critical information with the public through news media, the citizens retain their trust. In most cases, such a route leads to apathy, cynicism and sometimes public unrest. Thus, to instil confidence between regimes and the people they govern, information access is critical.

Finally, when the media is denied access to information, there is a lack of transparency and accountability. How can the people hold their government accountable? How can the public check abuse of power, impunity and corruption in the government? If people's mouthpiece, the media, has nothing to say, the people will be in darkness.

So, only truth can set the government free, and as Dalai Lama once said, “A lack of transparency results in distrust and a deep sense of insecurity”. 

Dr Ndonye is a senior lecturer, Department of Mass Communication, Kabarak University